Putting myself first
Q: Thank you for being willing to share your story anonymously. What do you do, and how long have you worked in energy?
Absolutely, I am currently a policy manager with a renewable energy developer. I’ve been in the energy industry for seven years now.
Q: How did you first get involved?
At first, I thought I got into energy through happenstance, but now I see that it was meant to be because of my background and story. My energy career began in grad school. I was looking for a job, and an on-campus energy research center was seeking a research assistant. I got the job and worked for a year and a half with displaced coal miners through an EPA-funded program to understand the strategies available to revitalize coal-producing counties. It was an illuminating experience that showed me how energy is interwoven with our daily lives.
Q: What made you want to continue working in energy after that first experience?
At first, it was a practical decision. I wanted to build on my initial experience and show employers I was on a trajectory. But really, I was sucked into the industry through the miner research project. I had contributed a lot of time and effort to the research, met many great people, and wanted to continue the work I was doing. I grew up in Nigeria and the US, which also contributed to my career choice. Unfortunately, Nigeria still lacks 24/7 access to electricity. Growing up with that inequity also attuned me to understand how critical energy is for everyone. I was passionate about ensuring my work had an equity lens and a social justice lens, so being part of shaping the energy transition was the perfect opportunity.
Q: Can you share a time when you had to navigate injustice or unfair treatment because you are BIPOC?
This happened right after grad school and spanned several months. The experience was quite traumatizing and resulted in my resignation from the company. I was working to implement a piece of energy legislation with several equity components. It was a small company, and I was the lead on a utility-contracted project. I brought together diverse stakeholders from community organizations, environmental justice groups, advocates, utilities, and regulators. I led meetings that brought all these people together to optimize income-qualified energy efficiency programs and increase program enrollment. I loved the role because it combined many of my strengths: communications, working with communities of color, research analysis, and stakeholder engagement. The role involved getting buy-in from communities across the state, and I would drive all over to meet with people.
The responsibilities associated with the role were challenging, and I managed all the work independently. I wasn’t told that would be the case in the interview process, so it was a shock once I joined the team. However, I love a challenge, so I threw myself into the work because I cared about the mission and saw how important these programs could be to communities. The work felt very personal to me, which is not uncommon for people of color. We see ourselves in the impact. We care about our communities, and we want our communities to excel.
About a year and a half into the role, the President brought in a white man with utility experience to advise on the project. I was told I would remain the lead and face of this multi-stakeholder project, but over time, he encroached on my role. I was used to leading check-in calls with the utility client, but soon he started to lead them because of his preexisting relationships— even though I was the project lead. I had to prep him beforehand with project updates and ideas so that he could regurgitate them to the client and present them as his own. It was hurtful that he was now being associated with the work I was doing.
Eventually, I was told to report to him even though he was an external consultant. That shocked me but was nothing compared to when he began sabotaging me. He started copying high-up individuals in the company and the utility client in emails to nitpick my work. He would complain about work that wasn’t complete or when he hadn’t received an update in a while. It became constant even though the results we were seeing reflected the excellent job I was doing. The utility saw a 65% increase in program participation; I brought organizations that previously mistrusted the utility to the table; I saw the fruits of my labor across the state.
I was invited to lead a panel at a regional energy conference because of my work bringing communities together and building new bridges of communication. The hall was packed with around 700 people, and I successfully led the panel with community organizations who spoke about their experience engaging in the process and programs. After the panel, the consultant said, “Well, you just love being everywhere, don’t you? You put yourself everywhere, don’t you?”
That interaction made it clear to me that his actions were motivated by envy and racism while we worked together. He couldn’t understand how this young Black girl got these results and hated to see me celebrated. He wanted to cut me down, and it only got worse once we went remote during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now he had to ability to call me at all hours of the night to browbeat me. I started to develop anxiety every time my phone would ring. I began to second-guess my decisions, my impact. He turned the company President against me after repeatedly yelling and talking down to me in staff meetings. In one meeting, the President yelled at me, so I stood up for myself and said I would not be spoken to that way. It was clear that he was undermining me and cutting me down behind my back even though I was doing my job well. I received nothing but positive feedback from the client and stakeholders we worked with.
As much as I loved the job and the people I met, I had to leave. It felt like I was in a thankless role and didn’t have the internal support I needed to thrive. I was mentally spent. I needed to put myself first for once after giving my all to this job for so long. I knew I didn’t have to take this abuse any longer. When I told the stakeholder committee that I was leaving the company, I received over 100 replies thanking me for my work, saying they were sad to see me go, and asking if they could support my next steps. It was so validating after so much doubt and being told I wasn’t amounting to anything. I’m grateful I kept those relationships after I left. Several committee members even attended my wedding and sent me gifts. It was such a beautiful full circle moment.
After I left, the committee stalled in its progress, and groups began pulling out. I was also recognized with a 40 Under 40 Award for the work I led. Again, it was another validating piece of information because it showed just how much I was responsible for building this community of people. Black people and people of color in your organization will go elsewhere if they are not valued or supported. People of color need to remember the agency they have in their careers. If you’re not feeling supported, if you’re being gaslit or sabotaged, you don’t deserve that. It is not on you to change minds and hearts. There will be people that will never value you because of who you are, because of the color of your skin. You don’t have to stick around and take it.
Now I’m in a place where I feel valued as a professional and for what I bring to the table. Now I have a manager that listens and understands the obstacles I’ve faced to get where I am today. If there are instances where I feel overlooked, I speak up for myself. I feel a deep sense of pride when I see other women of color taking up space and making their voices heard. We have overcome so much in this field, and I am proud to see other women of color succeeding.
Q: What can industry leaders do to support BIPOC professionals within their organizations better, so this kind of mistreatment is not perpetuated?
Looking back on my experience, I wish I had been treated like a human. Of course, people expressed gratitude for my work here and there, but no one acknowledged the toll the work took on me. I was driving across the state, making what seemed like the impossible happen. I was doing the work of what could have been three people, and no one checked in to see how I was managing it all. Maybe I made it look easy, but anyone who understands how much time this kind of work takes would see how much I gave up for this company.
It’s sad and messed up, but white people in positions of power don’t always see people of color as people. They expect us to break our backs for results that, in turn, fuel their lives of leisure. Here I was, a Black woman bending over backward for this project that was essentially putting food on her table, and when push came to shove, she didn’t value or support me in any way. I was disposable in the face of a white man’s opinion. If you are in a leadership position, value your employees of color as people first. As much as history has tried to hide it, we have a shared humanity.
Q: Do you have any messages you’d like people of color within the industry to hear?
As people of color, we know that we are disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental injustices. It can feel like all odds are stacked against us, and it can be hard to feel heard. Know that you deserve to take up space. You deserve it more than anyone, given your proximity to the issues of our time. We owe it to ourselves to overcome challenges and not internalize the negative messages we may hear. You have a voice; don’t let anyone take it from you.